The two-story house has almost fallen into ruin. Debris covers the floor. In the midst of the rubble stand two well-equipped rescuers, looking sad yet determined. One wears a white safety helmet and clasps a pair of pincers. The other stands covering his mouth with a gray scarf and holding a hammer and other tools.
But upon closer inspection, observers will notice that both figures have a pair of sharp black horns on their heads. In fact, the figures - which are part of an innovative art exhibit - resemble the powerful robot "Astro Boy," star of the famous Japanese manga series of the 1960s.
The vinyl figurines, less than 10-cm high, are part of a display named WEAkid. They have been placed before a poster that carries rousing slogans, such as "unity is strength, and the will is undefeated".
The display is the latest in an ongoing series of art projects commemorating the Wenchuan earthquake by Wang Yu and Wang Binghui, two Beijing-based designers.
The exhibition was featured in "Meet in Beijing - 2008 Olympic Cultural Events", which was held from Sept 20 to 28 at the Beijing Art Center. The event attracted many international designers, artists and students.
"The show is also targeted at people who know little about 'platform toys,' which are used in the display. We'd like to awaken new audiences to this unique field of creative design," says Wang Yu, an architect, illustrator, independent designer and curator of the exhibition.
The emerging concept of "platform toys" - also known as "designer toys" in Europe and the United States - is gaining fans around the world. The artistic method is to draw on the blank surfaces of toys to convey a variety of themes. The products are commonly made of plastic, vinyl, wood and metal in limited editions. Some creators imitate characters from comic books and cartoon series, also infusing elements of fashion, graffiti and other pop arts.
Wang Yu once thought that being an architect was the greatest joy for a designer. But later he discovered other sources of inspiration. In 2002, Wang started to draw graffiti on unusual surfaces as birthday presents for friends. A longtime collector of classic toys, he later experimented with 3D figures, which laid the basis for today's WEAkid toys.
In 2006, he founded TOY KINGDOM, an independent brand of Chinese designer toys and other products. Soon he released his first platform series, the 16-cm-high WEAkid.
"The processes of architecture and toy producing are basically the same," he says. However, he has more control over the latter, from start to finish. "I couldn't control the birth of a house, but I can fully manage a small toy project."
"There are few arenas for young designers and artists to showcase their ideas. The platform toy has risen to be an important stage," says Lin Zhicheng, a Beijing-based seller of platform toys. His store XANADU is located in Beijing's Sanlitun area. In addition, his online shops offer a wide range of quality vinyl figurines. Prices range from dozens to thousands of yuan.
"The platform toy is like the television - something on which artists can put any information and embody their personalities," he adds.
The recent exhibition in Beijing included eight platform toy brands from China, Japan, the United States and Singapore, including BE@RBRICK, Trexi, Trunks, I and Qee. The artform is popular mainly among younger designers and artists. "We always argue that we are not really making 'toys'," says Eddi from adFunture Workshop, now based in Shanghai. That workshop released its first vinyl figurine in Hong Kong in 2002.
To raise the profile of the new art, designer Wang Yuwei has a lot of ideas and energy. Wang founded Beijing XXXL Remixed Creative Factory last year with Tiger Lin, a musician from Taiwan.
"We will show the consumers that these figures are not mere toys," Wang says.
Wang is also interested in promoting art and design in China in a general way. "Much needs to be done to transform the label of 'Made in China' into 'Created in China,'" he says. "The Chinese designers are contributing their own strengths to the realization of this dream."